Ranger Kathryn's Arches

August 8, 2010

Quicksand: A primer

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:14 am
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Standing on the "road." Tomorrow's quicksand area is one giant step behind me, currently flooded.

Hopping out of the truck at the NO VEHICLES signpost, we inspected the cut bank sculpted by the recent flash floods. In ordinary conditions this was a regular 4WD vehicle crossing, so we walked toward the water’s edge on the packed wet sand. Six steps were normal; on the seventh, the sand rippled and vibrated, like shaken Jell-O jigglers; our boots sank several inches, and we beat a hasty retreat. The sand looked exactly the same in both places.

Should there be quicksand warning signs here at Indian Creek? Naw. Use your common sense.

This was my first encounter with quicksand. I am guilty of having the same misconceptions about quicksand as you may have, so today’s post is an attempt to clear this up.

Quicksand is really not any special kind of sand; it is actually a condition, super-saturation, that is happening to a patch of sand. There is an insistent flow of water beneath the surface that agitates the grains of sand, lifting them apart. Each grain of sand is surrounded by a thin film of water, and as they lose friction with each other the solid mass breaks asunder. The water is not strong enough, however, to completely disperse the sand and the resultant soupy pool therefore can look like solid ground.

Here Bill mentions that he would rather not sink up to the axles in quicksand.

At rest, quicksand thickens with time, but it remains very sensitive to small variations in stress. At higher stresses, quicksand liquefies very quickly, and the higher the stress the more fluid it becomes. This causes a trapped body to sink when it starts to move.

According to a study published in the journal Nature, quicksand has a density of about 2 grams per milliliter; human density is only about 1 gram per milliliter. It is impossible for a person in quicksand to be drawn completely under. You would descend about up to your waist, but you’d go no further.

Here is a delightfully entertaining 3-minute video clip from the Discovery Channel, in which Bear Grylls shows us how to escape from Colorado River quicksand near Moab. (How appropriate!) Enjoy it — and stay away from jiggly sand!

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August 7, 2010

“In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

[Continued from yesterday]

Collared Lizard! Gorgeous! Click to see reptilian skin texture up close.

The rest of our day, in pursuit of a third sheep which we never find, is filled with ancillary discoveries that make up for the missed animal. A Black Widow web (one of many) catches my eye, messy-looking with stiff sticky threads. The widow is not in sight. A Collared Lizard, my favorite reptile ever, runs in front of us and strikes an extraordinary pose. Its yellowness assaults my eyes and we inch nearer to study it in detail. I pull out my camera and Bill suggests I approach it from the side so it can see me and not be startled. He seems to know everything about every creature out here, not to mention the local geology, botany, and meteorology. I wonder what it must be like to be so attuned to your small corner of the world that you know it inside and out, backward and forward. Actually, I marvel. I want to be wilderness-wise like that.

Similar to these granaries, which are in Canyonlands at Aztec Butte. (file photo)

At another stop, we pause on the high cliffs to view the mouth of Indian Creek where it meets the Colorado. Bill points out three ancestral Puebloan dwellings built into the side of the wall below us, and I study them through binoculars and marvel again. There are hundreds of archeological sites in Canyonlands; I’ve seen only a few. This must be remedied.

With an hour of daylight left, neither of us is in a mood to leave this place and find ourselves indoors. We strike out to the far end of an outcropping where we can sit and watch the day wind down. Not a sound reaches our ears but a distant hiss of a small waterfall, 1200 feet below and around a bend, and later one languorous canyon bird. Sitting in silence, gratitude wells up in both of us for the unexplainable gift of another day in a spectacular wilderness.

Alpenglow on the Wingate sandstone, three minutes before sunset

We’d better get back to the truck. I see a twinkle in Bill’s eyes as he asks, “Old route, or new route?” “What?!? You have routes you’ve not yet walked?” “Well, I may have, but I’ve forgotten. Old route, or new route?” “NEW!” We head off toward some white rock biscuits, way bigger than ourselves, wondering with the waning light if we’ll be stuck in the dark because of my choice. Gotta take risks. Gotta take chances. Gotta live on the edge.

It’s fully dark when the truck meets up with the stream bank that had the quicksand. We motor across the shallows without incident. Venus is in the western sky, and Bill stops the vehicle to mount the spotting telescope on his window. Mars, Saturn, and Mercury are all in close proximity to Venus tonight, and we study them in turn. The Milky Way arcs across the heavens, beckoning me to sleep beneath it. Thoreau’s words — the title of this post — reverberate in my jubilant soul.

August 4, 2010

Indian Creek flash flood

See human for scale. Try to hear the roar.

Thundering beyond its banks in The Needles, Indian Creek plummeted over the waterfall beyond Hamburger Rock Campground. Chocolate water, by the tens of thousands of gallons, reminded me of liquid mud as it raced toward its inevitable meeting with the Colorado River downstream. Logs and branches floated past; the roar drowned out all other noise. I had just stepped away from a bank further upstream as an arc of sandy soil was undercut, slumping with a thick WHUMP into the churning waters. It had been raining much of the day, and the power of rapidly moving water made me feel very, very small.

Our roadway was cut off by a flash flood; there would be no camping in the backcountry tonight. Monsoons have been heavy and concentrated of late, and low-lying areas are inundated with little warning in this country, in this season.

I had come to The Needles district with Bill Sloan, wildlife biologist with the NPS, to track his radio-collared bighorn sheep. In his thirty years of intimate acquaintance with this district, he has not seen Indian Creek at this stage — ever. We would have to sleep in park housing instead of in our tents in the middle of absolute wilderness. Rats.

Looking upstream from Hwy 211 bridge over Indian Creek

Looking downstream from Hwy 211 bridge over Indian Creek

Sunset after the storm. The Needles district, Canyonlands NP.

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